Saturday, December 12, 2015

Song Dissection: Skateaway

I was a fairly depressed person in the 1980's. One of my biggest causes of my angst is that something I loved was being destroyed before my eyes ... and ears. I thought rock and roll was dying.  Everything coming out seemed so over produced. Each time a new album came out of one of my favorite musicians, it was a great disappointment. The rawness, the intimacy was gone. All I could think of was some corporate douche sitting at the sound board with a pile of cocaine in front of him yelling at a band, like Heart or Genesis, that they need to add more synthesizer or insert sax solo here... or "you need more hair spray, your hair is not tall enough." Rock and roll made a lot of money in the 1970's so that meant that a lot of people got involved in it for reasons other than making great music like making money. Dumbing down the music is great for sales.

MTV (Music Television) also happened.  Having a network dedicated to pop music was good for the industry for a lot of reasons. Bands had a place to communicate almost directly with their fans for the first time. Before MTV, performers would have to hope for a rare spot on the Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand or Top of the Pops.  MTV had tour dates and interviews and fans could see their favorite performers readily and, of course, there was the music video. The video was a new creative medium that attracted film people to music in new creative ways. This is a good thing, but it also had a bad effect on music. The music wasn't just audio now, it was visual. The big money labels wanted to manage the image of musicians as well as their audio output. This is virtual death to creative types.

Here is what the awesome Wilson sisters from the band Heart looked like before the MTV era. 

Here is after:
Of course, they had their biggest hit "These Dreams" in the MTV era which is a pretty dreadful song co-written by one of my favorite song writers Bernie Taupin. Since this is a blog post about Dire Straits, I won't pan it any further. The era was in need of a new kick ass rock band.

I was only 12 when "Sultans of Swing" hit my FM station in 1977 and I had already started my Dylan obsession. I just had bought my first Dylan album in cassette, Infidels. My first exposure to Dylan was from MTV, the Sweetheart Like You video. Imagine that!  The first time I ever heard Dire Straits, I thought "Wow, Bob Dylan can sing!" Of course, I was mistaken it was Mark Knoffler not Dylan. If Dylan had a better voice, he'd sound like Knopfler. This band had everything. They had one of the best guitarists in rock history (27th on Rolling Stones top 100) , a killer rhythm section, a good singer and decent lyricist. How could MTV ruin this band?

Dire Straits was just so talented they could do whatever they wanted in regards to their image. They could be themselves. Mark Knopfler was a white balding Brit in his late 20's who went on stage wearing head bands and wrist bands. Talent trumps trendiness. How does a band like this survive in the era of MTV? They confront it head on. The song and video of Skateaway is about the movies we make in our head when we hear music, that which the music video robs us of. It is on their third album "Making Movies", arguably their best, which gets its title from the lyrics of the song (see below).

The lyrics are straight forward and the video is sparse and to the point. It is about a girl, a "roller girl," skating through traffic. She has headphones on and she is in her own world. While the world is at a standstill she weaves in and out of traffic freely. The "city's been so rude to her" but this is her revenge, she "tortures taxi drivers just for fun." It is escapism, but it is the "rock n roll dream" that makes her want want more, "the music make her wanna be the story."

Ironically, it is hard not to see this video in my head when I hear this song. I prefer to make own movies when I hear a great tune, but is one of the better videos I have seen. I like how the band comes in at the end and just sways back and forth. No glitter here, just rock and roll.  Rock and roll survived and is better than ever thanks to bands like Dire Straits who kept it burning through the dark ages of the 1980s.

lyrics Mark Knopfler
I seen a girl on a one way corridor
Stealing down a wrong way street
For all the world like an urban toreador
She had wheels on, on her feet
Well, the cars do the usual dances
Same old cruise and the curbside crawl
But the rollergirl, she's taking chances
They just love to see her, take them all
No fear, alone at night
She's sailing through the crowd
In her ears the phones are tight
And the music's playing loud
Hallelujah, here she comes, Queen Rollerball
In an Enchante, what can I say, care at all
You know she used to have to wait around
She used to be the lonely one
But now that she can skate around town
She's the only, only one
No fear, alone at night
She's sailing through the crowd
In her ears the phones are tight
And the music's playing loud
She gets rock 'n' roll and rock 'n' roll station
And a rock 'n' roll dream
She's making movies on location
She don't know what it means
And the music make her wanna be the story
And the story was whatever was the song, what it was
Rollergirl don't worry
DJ play the movies all night long
She tortures taxi drivers just for fun
She like to read their lips
Says, "Toro, toro taxi see ya tomorrow, my son"
I swear, she let a big truck graze her hip
Ah, she got her own world in the city, yeah
You can't intrude on her, no, no, no
She got her own world in the city
The city's been so rude to her
No fears, alone at night
Sailing through the crowd
In her ears the phones so tight
And the music's playing loud
She gets rock 'n' roll and rock 'n' roll station
And a rock 'n' roll dream
She's making movies on location
She don't know what it means
But the music make her wanna be the story
And the story was whatever was the song, what it was
Rollergirl don't worry
DJ play the movies all night long, all night long
Slippin' and a-slidin'
Yeah, life's a rollerball
Slippin' and a-slidin'
Skateaway, that's all
Shala, shalay, hey, hey, skateaway
Now shala, shalay, hey, hey
She's singing shala, shalay, hey, hey, skateaway
Shala, shalay, hey, hey

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Apology Nation (I Blame The Quiet)

One of the most frustrating things about being politically active is observing the absurd and not having any capacity to stop it. All those people who a decade ago who were gung-ho about this bullshit war in Iraq... are now the same people who are so against taking in refugees from Syria. Do people connect the dots? It is a simple case of cause and affect. If you go freely into the cause, surely, you must accept the affect.  Right? Surely, most understand that if you contribute to destabilizing a region of the planet, then it is partly your responsibility to assist those that are displaced by your actions. In all political discussions, the most frustrating, maddening even, are the quiet ... those who say nothing. I can at least respect those that disagree with me, those with a backbone. Those who say nothing, the jellyfish, are simply cowards.

But I have discovered a new low ... those that are quiet during the cause but once the affect is upon us, they complain loudly. They roll their eyes when we debated the war and said "must we talk politics" and now, when we talk about the refugees from the area, they complain that me might take them in, wrapped a warm flag striped with ignorance and fear. The quiet are the problem not the loud. If you are out on the town and sitting at a bar quietly talking shit with a friend and there is a loud group of people talking politics at the next table ... they are not the problem, you are. Stop talking about Modern Family and walk over there and join in. Argue with the person that you disagree with or support the person who is brave enough to speak up, but stop being quiet. The quiet are the problem. I blame the quiet.

The virtues of quietude are not lost on me. I am a very quiet person while at my place of employment. Tactful, I guess, is the word. Tact is what one practices when you live in a world that values the perception of peace over getting things done. I can't change this so I play along. The most dreaded outcome in Apology Nation is being guilty of making someone feel something and pulling them out of their cocoon of denial. I avoid the big three subjects while I am at work: politics, religion and sex. My opinions on these subjects are no more radical than anyone else, but I have no doubt, like anyone else, that if I got onto one of these subjects at the workplace I may piss off a few or make a few just roll their eyes in disgust. This is unneeded in the workplace when you often have to work as a team among people from very different backgrounds. When I started my first job as a software analyst in Norwood, MA in the early 1990's, I was partnered with a very talented engineer who was an outright racist. It annoyed the hell out of me. Because I had to work with him everyday, I didn't tell him what a worthless piece of shit I thought he was. It was easy to avoid the subject and because I am a white dude like him, he thought I could relate. I'd ignore it and avoided the subject because I needed him to get things done. It was a tenuous relationship. I have some regrets, but mostly, I don't. I did what I had to do to get the job done. To get through the day without losing my job and paying the rent was the ultimate goal in that relationship. After I was laid off, I never talked to him again. But this type of quietude is not necessary in your private life. If expressing your opinions is going to fracture your personal relationships, then those relationships aren't worth saving. Ruffle some feathers, you'll find out who your real friends are.

As Thanksgiving approached this year, I saw several articles and comments on social media on how to avoid arguments at the holiday table. Why? Isn't that where this is supposed to happen? Aren't we supposed to be figure things out with people we trust? Instead of talking about global warming, gun control or terrorism, instead lets all talk about the weather, sports and Game of Thrones and be safe in our discussions, be quiet and polite. In the future, when your grandchild takes off her oxygen mask to ask you what you did to help fight global warming, you can proudly tell them "I was polite! I didn't offend anyone." In a nation where it is impolite to have an opinion, only the rude are expressing themselves. Don't worry about offending anyone. Democracy is supposed to be messy. Disruption is how to get things done. Stop apologizing for having an opinion.  Apology Nation will smolder at the bottom of a pile of nuclear fall out, it was be covered by the rising tide and murdered while it was shopping ... but at least it was polite.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Song Interpretation: She's A Jar

A modern novel has perspective. The first person narrator doesn't necessarily represent the writer. So when Twain uses the pronoun "I" in Huckleberry Finn, he isn't presenting his tale or opinion, but Huck's. Because the narrative is in first person, he/she isn't omniscient, has perspective and is biased. This makes for a more complex reading experience. This is why I find the reading experience of a modern novel so much more enjoyable. The world you delve into is more broader and full of possibilities. What isn't Huck telling me? Is he lying? Your narrator could be deeply flawed, delusional or insane like the narrators of Poe's Tell-tale Heart, Nabokov's Lolita or A M Home's The End of Alice. This makes for a wild ride.

 Pop songs are no different. When Bruce Springsteen sings a song from the perspective of a "Highway Patrolman" or when Ice T does so from the perspective of a "Cop Killer," they are using this same literary device. The "I" is not the singer of the song but a personae that is narrating the story. A lesser known and more abstract example of this is the song "She's a Jar" by Wilco.

The band Wilco is often called Dad Rock because most of their fans are men about my age, old enough to be dads, who grew up listening to rock songs with great lyrics like Bob Dylan, Neil Young or even Bob Seger. They are a newish Chicago-based band that was formed in 1994 from the ashes of the alt-country band Uncle Tupelo. "She's a Jar" is from their third album and my personal favorite, Summersteeth. Much of the album is about how the strains of being on the road affects your marriage.
We have two people in this song: the male narrator and the woman who is the "she" in the title. The last line, "You know she begs me not to hit her," really threw me for a loop the first time I heard it. You don't know a lot about the man, narrator, in this song, other than he is an abuser and he is on the road a lot. We know a lot about her because the song is about her. First thing we know is that she is a jar. The image that comes to mind is that she is made of glass and containing something nourishing, but then we find out that her lid is "heavy."

Much of the rest of the song is abstract full of imagery. None of it sticks and only some of it, becomes more clear when you hear the word "hit." The lines "the bruised road," "a pretty war," "my eyes red," "my face gets sick" or "dry your eyes" all do an interpretive bend when you hit that last line.

The abstract nature of the song begs for multiple interpretations. It is his thoughts and it is obvious, it is a struggle. He is fighting against as much as rationalizing his behavior. You could also consider the "hit" in the song isn't violence at all.  For if she is indeed a jar ... when you "hit" a jar, you are drinking from it, are you not?  But then, why would she be begging him not to if that were the case?

lyrics of Wilco's She's A Jar by Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy

 "She's A Jar"

She's a jar
With a heavy lid
My pop quiz kid
A sleepy kisser
A pretty war
With feelings hid
She begs me not to miss her

She says forever
To light a fuse
We could use
A hand full of wheel
And a day off
And a bruised road
However you might feel
Tonight is real

When I forget how to talk, I sing
Wont you please
Bring that flash to shine
And turn my eyes red
Unless they close
When you click
And my face gets sick
Like a question unposed

Just climb aboard
The tracks of a trains arm
In my fragile family tree
And watch me floating inches above
The people under me

Please beware the quiet front yard
I warned you
Before there were water skies
I warned you not to drive
Dry your eyes, you poor devil

Are there really ones like these?
The ones I dream
Float like leaves
And freeze to spread skeleton wings
I passed through before I knew you

I believe it's just because
Daddy's payday is not enough
Oh, I believe it's all because
Daddy's payday is not enough

Just climb aboard
The tracks of a trains arm
In my fragile family tree
And watch me floating inches above
The people under me

She's a jar
With a heavy lid
My pop quiz kid
A sleepy kisser
A pretty war
With feelings hid
You know she begs me not to hit her

Friday, October 30, 2015

If You Call Yourself a Christian and You Are Against Planned Parenthood, Then You Are a Hypocrite

As an atheist, I really shouldn't say too much about Christ, other than he did exist and he seems to have been a great person. Some of the ideas he taught were revolutionary for his time.  For this he has my respect as an historical figure in the same way that I respect Aristotle and Homer. Cognitive disconnect happens to me when I interact with some people who call themselves Christians but don't don't seem to act at all like Christ. He taught (in Matthew 19:24) that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!"and yet, you see millionaire barkers, with thousands of "Christian" followers, on television pontificating for cash. Not very Christ-like! I get the same feeling when I see people who consider themselves Christians bashing Planned Parenthood on social media. 

In 1970, our Republican President, Richard Nixon, signed into a law the Family Planning and Population Research Act which amended the Public Health Service Act. Title X of that law funded Planned Parenthood to provide family planning and contraceptive services. This passed with bi-partisan support. This was back when our Republican Party was actually conservative and assisting in family planning was a good fiscal idea. A good way to keep people off of welfare is to assist them in not being parents until they are ready. President Nixon stated "no American woman should be denied access to family planning assistance because of her economic condition." Much has changed in American politics. You would be hard pressed to find a Republican who would say anything close to this now.

Even though the Republican Party has been going backwards on this subject, America, in general, has come a long way. When Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood in Brooklyn, as a birth control clinic, in 1916, she was thrown in jail for distributing obscene material under the Comstock Act. Contraceptives and literature about birth control was put in the same category as pornography and sex toys. This legal case became nationally famous and the attention it brought to the cause led to changes in legislation in birth control and sex education. Probably the biggest thing it did was lighten us up on a subject that we were so uptight about. We wouldn't even talk about it.

When you hear the term Planned Parenthood, you immediately think of abortion. This is a victory for the right wing in America. This is extremely unfortunate because only 3% of what they do is abortion related. Even though abortion is a legal medical procedure, for over 40 years, some people still have a bug up their ass about it. In 2013, PP provided services to 2.7 million patients most of whom are poor women, 16% of whom are under the age of 20. They had over a million patient cancer related visits, over 4 million visits related to sexually related diseases and over 3 million contraception related visits.

With the Hyde Amendment as of 1976 (only three years after abortions were declared legal nationally), only 97% of what Planned Parenthood does is still federally funded. The 3%, aka the abortions, are not unless they are a result of rape, incest or the health of the mother is threatened. This article in the Washington Post documents it well with some good visuals. About a quarter of their overall funding comes from private funding from such funds as the Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation and Buffett Foundation. The Hyde Amendment was named after Henry Hyde a Republican congressman from Illinois. His name is almost synonymous with hypocrite.  He was one of the congressman who lead the charge to impeach President Clinton for his extramarital affair. During the hearing it was discovered that Hyde also had an affair.

Why is opposing Planned Parenthood hypocrisy if you are a Christian? Because if PP closed, it would hurt the poor the most. If we cut all federal funding to PP, they would still perform abortions because the funds are coming to them from private sources. It is the other services they provide that would be cut: the STD testing and treatment, contraceptive and cancer screening etc. Many of their patients are on Medicaid who service the very poor. A lot of health care providers don't take Medicaid because of the amount of administrative work it requires and the poor reimbursement rates. Planned Parenthood is one of their only options for care. I could be wrong about this, but what I know about Christ, is that he would want to help out the teenage girl, who has no money, with her chlamydia. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Song Dissection: Roads To Moscow

I thought of blogging my interpretations of some of my favorite Beatles or Bowie songs, but the Internet is full of these.  Rock n' roll is so chock-full of great songs, why pile onto the massive amount of Beatles fandom when I can tackle something more obscure. While listening to my Classic Rock play list on my iPod today while doing my errands, I heard Al Stewart's Roads to Moscow and I doubted that there was anything on the net that gave an interpretation of this song. When I got home and started googling. I found some sites that actually documented the history of the song, the World War II battles and such, but interpretation of what the song is about, I did not.

Al Stewart is a folk rock musician most famous for his song Year of the Cat from 1976. He is Scottish and is one of those UK musicians you can actually hear his accent when he sings (like Todd Rundgren or Robin Hitchcock) most likely because his singing is more like talking than singing.

Many of his songs, like Roads To Moscow, are historical in nature. It came out in 1973, on the Past, Present and Future album, a few years before his biggest hit got international air play. The song (lyrics below) is a first person narrative from the perspective of a Soviet soldier in WW II. The first verse highlights the events of June 1941 when Germany forces destroyed 90% of the Soviet air force in about a week.  The second verse recounts the German retreat through Ukraine, later that summer after the Battle of Moscow. The third verse brings us into the winter as the Russian troops march into Germany towards Stalingrad. The last verse is the saddest among them where he returns home, after four years of fighting, only to be arrested and thrown into a gulag.

The verses mostly tell the historical events and don't tell much about the state of mind of our narrator. For that you must look to the chorus. With all these events happening around him, all that he is ever "able to see" is "fire in the air, glowing red silhouetting the smoke on the breeze." He is in a forest but the only natural things he sees is "fire" and "smoke." He is isolated, not seeing much of the battle or the history unfolding around him. He is more of a pawn than a knight, slipping, crawling through fields and moving through shadows. As the town of Orel burns, they turn their backs on it. This was the point in the war, where Hitler thought Russia was defeated. General Guderian, creator of the blitzkrieg and Panzer commander, "stands at the crest of the hill." He, the leader, looks at the wreckage of Orel and reflex on the carnage, not the soldiers with their backs turned. The pawns have to move onto the next fight.

The second chorus replaces "smoke" with "snow" for here is where the war takes a turn, for the German war machine was not prepared for the Russian winter. "Snow" will be the savior of the Russian army and of Moscow as the Nazi troops fail to take her. The German army approached Moscow in a 200 mile long semi-circle. On December 5th, they decided to retreat for they did not have the strength to take the city. In the last chorus, "the city" awakes from a dream. It could be Moscow or Berlin, but at this point, it could be Tokyo or New York or any other city in the world because this is one of the big turning points of the war. The under-armed and starving Russian army are the not the push-overs that Hitler thought they were. Yet, our narrator is still feeling insignificant. All he sees is the "eyes" of the city. What are the eyes doing? Are they watching him? Judging him? All he wants to do is go home, but he never gets there. We never get home from war and we are always prisoners of history.

Apparently, Al Stewart claimed that he based the song on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The Nobel Prize winning author's life is similar to our narrator's. He served as a commander and artillery officer for the Red Army in East Prussia. He witnessed war crimes against German civilians, pillaging of some very weak and elderly civilians and gang rapes. He wrote about it in letters home criticizing Stalin and was arrested at the end of the war for it. He spent eight years in a labor camp. Not "forever" like our narrator, but the similarities are there.

I doubt if you will hear this song on the radio any time soon. The only time I've ever heard anywhere other my MP3's is on Radio Paradise.  So if you do ever hear it, maybe I will help with your appreciation a little, I hope.

"Roads To Moscow"
by Al Stewart

They crossed over the border the hour before dawn
moving in lines through the day
Most of our planes were destroyed on the ground where they lay
Waiting for orders we held in the wood
Word from the front never came
By evening the sound of the gunfire was miles away

I softly move through the shadows, slip away through the trees
Crossing their lines in the mist in the fields on our hands and our knees

And all that I ever
Was able to see
The fire in the air, glowing red
Silhouetting the smoke on the breeze

All summer they drove us back through the Ukraine
Smolensk and Viasma soon fell
By Autumn we stood with our backs to the town of Orel
Closer and closer to Moscow they come
Riding the wind like a bell
General Guderian stands at the crest of the hill

Winter brought with the rains, oceans of mud filled the roads
Gluing the tracks of their tanks to the ground, while the skies filled with snow

And all that I ever
Was able to see
The fire in the air, glowing red
Silhouetting the snow on the breeze

(Ah, Ah, Ah) [x4]

(Ah, Ah, Ah) [all thru bridge]
In the footsteps of Napoleon, the shadow figures stagger through the winter
Falling back before the gates of Moscow, standing in the wings like an avenger
And far away behind their lines, the partisans are stirring in the forest
Coming unexpectedly upon their outpost, growing like a promise
You'll never know, you'll never know, which way to turn, which way to look you'll never see us
As we steal into the blackness of the night you'll never know, you'll never hear us

And evening sings in a voice of amber, the dawn is surely coming
The morning road leads to Stalingrad, and the sky is softly humming

Two broken tigers on fire in the night
Flicker their souls to the wind
We wait in the lines for the final approach to begin
It's been almost four years that I've carried a gun
At home, it will almost be spring
The flames of the tiger are lighting the road to Berlin

I quickly move through the ruins that bow to the ground
The old men and children they send out to face us, they can't slow us down

And all that I ever
Was able to see
The eyes of the city are opening
Now it's the end of a dream

(Ah. Ah, Ah) [x4]

(Ah, Ah, Ah) [thru this section]
I'm coming home, I'm coming home , now you can taste it in the wind the war is over
And I listen to the clicking of the train wheels as we roll across the border
And now they ask about the time that I was caught behind their time and taken prisoner
They only held me for a day, a lucky break I say
They turn and listen closer
I'll never know, I'll never know, why I was taken from the line with all the others
to board a special train and journey deep into the heart of holy Russia

And it's cold and damp in the transit camp and the air is still and sullen
and the pale sun of October whispers the snow will soon be coming
And I wonder when, I'll be home again and the morning answers never
And the evening sighs and the steely, Russian skies go on,

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Good Guys and Bad Guys

They are experts at social media. They know how to use it to recruit our teenagers, to prey on the most vulnerable among us, the young, confused and socially isolated. They live among us, we don't see them but they sneak into our homes convincing our loved ones that they will gain respect if they join their ranks. No, I am not talking about terrorist groups or other radical groups, I am talking about a group sanctioned by our government and paid for by our taxes. I am talking about the military recruiter ... the peddler of glory, phony heroics and "Be All You Can Be" jingoism. Convincing the young and vulnerable that there is glory to perform in horrendous acts under the guise that we are the "Good Guys."  The Good Guys invaded Iraq in 2003, a country that was not bothering us, whose government had no ties to terrorism. The Good Guy destabilized an entire region of the globe.

I see the Good Guy/Bad Guy rhetoric everywhere in the media. Our public discourse over war, heroism and ethics has been thrown into the intellectual realm of comic books. I am not talking about modern complex comics. Graphic novels and plain old comic books are far more sophisticated than the crap on the 24 hour news cycle. I am talking about the old corny comics. As if there are good guys like Captain America and bad guys like The Red Skull. In the 24 hour news cycle our only  choices are between white or black. Gray is not an option. The bad guys are the terrorists, the school shooters or the looters. The good guys are the American soldiers and the person who took down the shooter.  But we know (don't we?) that life is more complex than that. Situations are bad, not people. There are exceptions of course, but there are a lot more factors involved rather than just the polemic good/bad dichotomy. Yes, surely, the act of a terrorist is bad, but is someone who has been living in extreme poverty, who has been isolated and radicalized, bad? Or are they just victims of a really shitty situation? What good is the media doing, by labeling the "good" and the "bad" rather than just telling us the facts and letting us decide? Are they just being lazy or do they believe in this simplistic view of the world?  Are they properly performing their duties as the fourth estate or are they simply contributing to the noise?

If we are going to split the world into good guys and bad guys, we need to change the rules.  Lets agree to call someone, on-line, who convinces your child to join ISIS to be a bad guy.  But we must also agree to call the recruiter for the US military who is using the same tactics, appealing to the same emotions and needs ... a bad guy. The recruiters are not only on social media, but they sponsor events in your community, they recruit in schools, they have booths at NASCAR races and sporting events. Their biggest selling point, we'll pay you to get educated, you get to travel and oh ya, you can carry a gun and kill brown people. Then when you come home, we'll clap for you when you attend baseball games in your uniform and call you a "hero," ... if you survive that is. They'll call you one of the Good Guys ... even if you spent your days in the military kicking in doors of completely innocent people, terrorizing them or perhaps shooting them from a rooftop. Like most Western nations, our nation's record is not even close to being good in the Middle East. If you volunteer to help our government commit their crimes, I see nothing good about that. It is just not that simple. Labeling them "good guys" and "bad guys" is oversimplifying the issues to a dangerous degree.

The bad guy nomenclature is also used in reporting of our many mass shootings here in the states. Of course, most of these people aren't "bad" people but mentally ill. Calling them bad is a good way of not confronting the issue. We have a very poor health system here in the United States, particularly when it comes to mental health.  We also have a lot of guns and extremely lax laws. This is the real "bad" here, a bad combination.

Then of course, the worst use of the "bad guy/good guy" dichotomy is when head douche-bag at the NRA (National Rifle Association), Wayne Lapierre, stated that "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." I would suggest that if you are in a church, college campus, elementary school or movie theater and you have gun ... then you are the "bad guy."  The "good" guy with the gun is out hunting or wearing a uniform playing defense.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

I've Been Complaining About Cops For Years, It Is About Time You Admit I Am Right

Think back to when you were high school. If you are high school now, you can do this also, look around you. Think of the dumbest person in your class. He/She was sitting in the back of the room, perhaps carving something into the desk, maybe sleeping. What is this person doing now as an adult? It is possible they made something of themselves. Perhaps they went into the military or pulled their act together somehow. I hope so, but they could be in jail.  Also, there is a good chance that they are a cop. 

For me I think of this one guy that I used to walk to school with in middle school and for the first few years of high school. He was someone that I was very good friends with in elementary school, from my neighborhood, but as I matured, we went our own different ways. He couldn't read while I was buried in books. He used to torture bugs. A few times he dropped acid on the way into school. I stopped walking to school with him after a while. I was hanging with a different crowd. What is he doing now? He is the chief of police in my home state not too far from where I grew up. I assume and hope he turned his life around, but from my experience with cops, this is not necessarily true. This isn't exactly a profession that attracts the most intelligent and for some it may attract the most sadistic among us.

I have not lead a life of crime. My life has been quite boring, but I did speed a lot when I was younger and I did get a lot of speeding tickets. I was a nervous driver. But after awhile, I started to get pulled over and told I was speeding when obviously I was not. When cars were passing me. I was an easy target for cops who had quotas. I'd challenge them in court and lose. Who was the judge going to believe, the college kids with long hair or the cops which she knew. Of course, I lost. I was once given a ticket on Cape Cod for driving 70 MPH up a hill from a stop with my K car. For those who don't remember K cars, they were a crappy four cylinder car that could barely get to 70 MPH on a flat surface, never climbing an incline. Again, I was an easy target, an out-of-stater with a bad driving record. I just payed the fine rather than challenging the ticket because it was less expensive than taking a day out of work and school to go to court ... and then to probably lose. I ended up getting an attitude of "why not speed," I am going to get a ticket anyway.

That was a long time ago, but my attitude hasn't changed.  Not about speeding, no, I don't speed much anymore especially since I bought a Prius. My Prius doesn't use gas if I drive around 35 MPH so I chug along these dirt roads going real slow. My attitude about cops hasn't changed. They are dicks, power-seeking douche bags out to financially-rape the tax payers. Cops are not a source for good in the world. Cops are there to maintain the status quo ... to keep the poor down and keep the wealthy ... wealthy. They are not there to keep our roads safe, but to raise revenue. I don't call a cop unless I absolutely have to. It is my experience that having a cop present usually makes any experience worse.

I say all this as a white guy in Vermont. Since I moved to Vermont, I have noticed that the cops are a lot nicer and seem to harass the tax payers much less than a lot of other places in this country. Occasionally, I do get pulled over for bullshit like my headlight is burnt out or my license plate is obstructed. While Vermont's meth and heroin problem is still out of control, you can rest assured, our headlights are just fine.

I know plenty of people from around this country and some of them are not white. I hear their complaints about cops, I usually believe them but I know most white people don't. But now that we have had so much coming out these days from dash board cams to iPhone videos, can anyone really not believe me or them when we say that cops are dicks? I know the immediate response we get is that "my brother is a cop and he is a good cop" but let's face it, the dick cops have relatives that think they are good cops too. Do you really know that the cop you know is one of the good ones? Isn't it about time to admit that we don't have have a crime problem, but a cop problem?

How much more evidence do you need than this?

Exhibit A: A Staten Island man, Eric Garner, being choked to death by the NYPD. Mr. Garner's crime: selling cigarettes.

Exhibit B; When a bunch of black kids show up at a pool party in a white suburb in Texas, this what happens:

Exhibit C: Here is what happens when you run from a cop in Charleston, South Carolina.

Exhibit D: Here is what happens to you when you peacefully protest at UC Davis. That's right, that is pepper spray.

I could go on, it is very easy to do here from my back porch in Vermont.  Just type "police brutality" in your search engine. It is fun!

I could imagine that being a police officer is a difficult job. I could also imagine that it can take a toll on you psychologically. I am not sure what the solution is to this problem. I think we might want to start the solution by stop the recruiting cops from the bottom of the pile. If we simply picking the best of the sadists and sociopaths that we can find, I can see why we are where we are.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

My New Religion: Boxerism

I have pondered in the past about how many of our religions today are based on books of superstitions written in the Bronze Age. This thought always makes me think, why not have a religion based on a newer book from the last century perhaps. But of course L. Ron Hubbard beat me to it. I would rather have a religion based on a good book, something from the literary canon. What about Animal Farm by George Orwell? This an allegorical book not to be taken literally. This is the perfect book to base a religion on.

In the book, after the animals take over the farm, the pigs take charge and found a religion called Animalism. I could start following Animalism. Why not? I love animals. This does cause me some personal conflicts. The first commandment of Animalism is "Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy." I do identify with this. I trust and like most four-legged creature more than I do two-legged, but this first commandment would put me in the category of the enemy. This is not a good religion for me. I need a religion that puts me at the top, that puts me as the good one and the other (non-followers) as the bad. I could rewrite the tenets to support my needs like the pigs did.  For example, they added the words "to excess" to the fifth commandment to be "no animal shall drink alcohol to excess" and they added "without cause" to the sixth to be "no animal shall kill any other animal without cause."  In kind, I could amend the first commandment to be "whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy except for me and my friends." That might work. I could easily use this commandment to demonize anyone I wanted to. That is one of the best advantages of having a religion, you get to moralize and get to have an easy template to judge others. Ultimately, Boxerism works better for me.

Boxer is the horse in Animal Farm, more specifically a work horse. Boxer is simplistic, naive, innocent and hard working. He does most of the work on the farm. He believes all you need to do in life is work hard and good things will come to you. "I will work hard," is his motto. He is a hero of the rebellion for he was an important factor in the Battle of Cowshed where he had a decisive victory over the stable boy. He ends up breaking his leg and the pigs sell his carcass for some whiskey and his remains carted off to be made into glue. I love this book. I've got to reread it again.

Boxer is perfect for a religious figure. For one, he is a rebel. Like most rebellions it was only successful for a short of time The human overlords were simply replaced by porcine overlords, but he is still a heroic figure, someone the people can look up to. He was killed, perhaps martyred, by someone he trusted that is a plus in the religious realm. He returned after his death as glue. 

The workhorse reins will be our religious symbol, we will wear these around our neck:

If our bosses complain, we will claim religious persecution. After all, it does bear the motto, "I will work hard" on its base.

Our religious city will be in India, Motihari, the birth place of George Orwell. We will lead bus tours for the holiest of Boxerists. Our gift shops will make a killing selling kitschy crap like this:

Why? Because Boxer is sacred. "All hale Boxerism!"

Since we don't know what day Boxer was transformed into glue, we will randomly pick a day to be our high holy days ... let's say, I don't know sometime in late December. 

I once had a girlfriend who told me that she cried when she read Animal Farm. This was toward the end of the relationship of my young adulthood, when I was grappling for reasons to like her. My ears perked up.  "Do tell!"  Was she lamenting the state of the humanity, a doomed political animal? No, she said, "Poor Boxer!" Yes, it does work at a literal text. It is perfectly fine to extol the masses and then take their money. Televangelist do it everyday. Let me snort their glue (in religious ceremonies only of course) and be happy with their delusions.


Monday, August 10, 2015

Cokie #bestdogever

Euthanizing your pet is perhaps the most macabre experience you will ever have in your life. I've had to do it three times now and I can't imagine ever getting used to it. It is not just the loss of the creature that you love that is so awful, but the experience in general is really difficult. The vet comes into the room with a syringe of chemicals, they insert it into your pet's veins and they slowly pass-away in peace. They don't even seem like they have died. They seem like they are just staring.  You have to close their eyes. When you pick them up, only their limp body convinces you that they are gone. Perhaps it is more humane than the alternatives, but this doesn't stop it from being an awful experience. Not only do you have the loss of a loved one to deal with but now you have this awful memory for the rest of your life.

I am a privileged person to have had my dog, Cokie, in my life. She is the only dog that we've had that we have had since the very beginning of her life. When we picked her up she fit in the cup of my hands. All our other dogs came "pre-owned" with a ton of issues ranging from aggression to abandonment, while Cokie had none of these. We like to think it is because we had her since she was born that she was perfect. I can't say I've ever met a dog like her. She lit up the room. Everyone wanted to pet her. We had a line of people who wanted to dog sit. She was sweet and gentle and every child we knew wanted to take her home with them. How an extremely imperfect person as myself got thrown into the role of making the decision on whether this perfect creature would live or not ... I do not know.  How could I judge of her suffering? How do I judge on whether it is her suffering or my own that drives this decision? I am a wretch.

Cokie's perfection started in 2002. We had only one dog, Rex, at that time. He needed companionship for when we left him alone. My wife saw a free German shepherd puppies ad in the paper. She drove over Lake Champlain to Crowne Point, NY to a trailer park. The only pup left was the runt that no one wanted because she was so small. She was the smallest in a litter of ten so she didn't get a lot of time at her mom's teats early on. The people who owned her parents, kept them outside so when we took Cokie home her stomach was distended with worms. She had the worst puppy breathe I have ever smelled and she was obsessed with licking which is something that she never got over. I don't think I've ever fell in love so quickly.

I remember a few years ago, I was on the phone with an insurance agent who wanted to charge me higher rates because I had a German shepherd and I tried to explain "she only weighs 40 pounds" and of course, she wouldn't ever bite anyone, but might lick someone. This didn't convince him and I found another agent. She didn't look like a shepherd. We got a lot of comments about her when we brought her into public.  "Is that a fox?"  " ... a coyote?"  "... a dingo?"  Right! I have a dingo as a pet. Both of her parents were German Shepherds but she didn't look like one. She never got any black in her coating.  It just meant that she lacked the agouti gene so she was only tan. Her being only tan and very small, convinced some that she wasn't a Shepherd.

About three years ago, we were vacationing with two dogs in Saguenay, Quebec, a beautiful area just a few hours drive from the Canadian border. We rented a dog-friendly place that wasn't really very friendly for dogs. This is just a reminder that dog-friendly only means that you can have dogs; it doesn't mean that it is a good place to have them. This place had a loft for the bed and a steep staircase that was more like a ladder. There was no stopping her from going up to be with us at night while we slept. I could help her get up but getting her down was another story. She fell down the last few stairs and hurt her hip. This breed normally has hip difficulties so this didn't help and she was around ten years old so prognosis wasn't good. She hobbled around for awhile and she got worse as the years progressed. When she was young she used to run around the dog park keeping pace with the whippets, but no longer. The last year and a half of her life we had to carry her outside for her bathroom breaks. The winters were not pleasant. Her light weight made this a lot easier for us. She spent the last two years of her life on her bed not doing much, but not in pain. Her quality of life was still good. It must have been the pain killers that eventually destroyed her liver.

I had a dream today that I was holding her. I could feel her very familiar coat, I felt the breathe in her chest going up and down and her heart beating. I believe she even licked my face like she used to do. This was nice. It felt very real and sweet; it felt like a good-bye or perhaps that she was forgiving me. Regardless, I had a somber reminded of my loss. I know it is an irrational guilt I have for euthanizing her, but it will remain. It did with the other two. No matter how I tell myself it was the ethical thing to do, I feel just awful about it.

Now that my three dogs are dead and I have two new ones, I honestly pledge that I will never have three dogs around the same age again.  Too much heart-ache and expenses all at the same time.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Comparing my Paris and Spain Trips

Last year's trip to Spain was a blur, quick and hectic. This year when we went to Paris, to celebrate my 50th birthday, it was well planned and longer in duration. One of the few things I can say about both of them, Europe is awesome and beautiful and her people are friendly. I am not sure why anyone would spend a cent on a Disney vacation, when Europe is so close, especially for anyone on the East Coast like us.

I don't go to Europe often. If I had more money, I would remedy this. I've only been on that continent four times. It is not cheap, but with the Euro not doing so well, it is a pretty good time to go. If Greece pulls out of the Europe Union, which it might shortly, expect the Euro to crash and this becomes an affordable trip for anyone not in the EU, provided that non-EU currencies don't go along with it. My first trip to Europe was to the western half of Ireland (the Ring of Kerry, Galway, Killarney, etc.) for an in-law's wedding. This was a great trip with no problems with language. The greatest challenge was driving on the left hand side of the road with our rental. I caught a bug, a Europe travel bug. I loved it. In 2007, we took a river cruise on the Danube that went from Prague in the Czech Republic through Germany and Austria and ended in Budapest, Hungary. It was one of the best times I've ever had. Last year's Spain trip and this month's Paris trips are only other times I've been.

It is difficult to compare these two trips because they were so very different. Spain was coastal so we rented a car and hit many towns and cities while in Paris, we stayed in one city and took the Metro. Spain was spontaneous and short while Paris was well planned and twice as long.

Spain: Last summer my wife and I were contacted by a single friend who received a week of free time at a time share in Spain. She had no one to go with and since it had two bed rooms and she is friendly with both of us, she asked us to accompany her. We took the opportunity, she picked the city and we paid for the rent-a-car. The car and flight were the big costs, the food wasn't so much because we had a kitchen. We were there for only a week. From the apartment's porch we could see the Mediterranean Sea, but we were atop a huge hill. There was little close to us, with no coffee maker in the apartment, I had to drive to get coffee. We were in the Costa de Sol (translate to the Coast of the Sun) which is aptly named. It is quite beautiful.  It is in the Andalusia region near the stunning city of Malaga which I heard pronounced about ten different ways. We drove up and down the highway all week going to different spots, a couple of days were just beach stop. We had a great time, but it was tiring. Driving in Spain sucks.

Paris: When I was pondering what I wanted for my 50th birthday. We thought of some material goods, like I've thinking of buying a scooter, but the idea of going to Paris for a week seemed so much more appealing and special. We learned from our trip to Spain last Summer that a week was too short of a trip. By the time you recover from jet lag, half of your week is done. So we stayed for ten days. Renting a car was out. I don't want to drive in Europe again if I can avoid it. We decided to stay one place the whole ten days and do day trips from a home base. France is famous for their mass transit system, so we did everything we wanted to do via train, metro and walking.

We stayed in Montmatre which meant nothing to me until I visited. It is a gorgeous urban neighborhood in Paris famous for its big hill with the Basilica at the top. It is home to the Moulin Rouge and the neighborhood where they filmed, Amélie , one of my favorite French films. It is also famous for all the artists that lived there like Picasso and Dali. We found the apartment on, a web site which has served us well. We haven't yet had a bad experience and have used it about a half dozen times. The apartment was small like most Paris apartments. When we pulled the couch out for a friend, we had to move the kitchen table. Its smallness didn't matter. This was basically just a place to sleep and eat, a home-base. It was perfectly situated on two major Metro lines. When we stepped out of our front door (see above), we were surrounded by cafes and bakeries. Each morning we planned our day's adventure over breakfast.

The Two Complaints I Hear About Paris:
Our experience of Paris couldn't have been better. The two complaints I've heard the most was the rudeness of the people and dirtiness of the city (namely, lots of dog shit).  We didn't have any problem with rudeness. It is a large city and we expect a certain level of "urban flair," but Paris is no more rude than New York or Boston. Most of the residents (non-service people) that we talked to were very pleasant and downright enjoyable to talk to. One guy started talking to me on the Metro because he noticed we were playing the same game on our phones, Two Dots. Between his broken English and my very poor French, we talked a while about the game. Compared to the stone-faces I get on the Boston T, this was downright joyous. My guess, is that the people who complain about Paris being rude, aren't very good tourists. They are probably are rude themselves. Probably the same people who complain about Montreal being rude.

On my last trip to Manhattan, I stayed in a neighborhood that had a dog shit problem. You really had to watch where you walked, the sidewalks were very gross. This is what I expected from Paris. In the ten days I spent in Paris, I think I saw only one pile of shit and it was on the side of a trashcan. Apparently, this really was a problem at one point. It has been illegal to not pick up after your dog in since 1982 but they just started to enforce it. This NPR story covers it well.  I guessed, I timed my trip well. Bon voyage sans excrement! (something like that).

The Best Of Paris:
Our experience is that the best of Paris are the smaller things. The Louvre was okay, but we preferred the smaller museums like the D'Orsay Museum which is in a spectacular old train station. Of the museums we visited, we enjoyed the Musée de l'Orangerie and the Rodin Museum more. While the Louvre was overwhelming and extremely crowded even on a Wednesday, these other museums were intimate and not so crowded. The L'Orangerie is mostly Impressionistic paintings with two room size circular Monet paintings. You stood in the middle of these paintings surrounded by them. Because the Rodin Museum is mostly sculptures, most of his work is in a garden. We were there on a beautiful Summer day and we got to see of his major work, The Thinker, The Kiss and The Gates of Hell.

We bought a couple of five day Museum Passes that covered the entrance to all of these including a pass to a short boat cruise on the Seine and a double-decker bus tour around the city. It also covered the Metro for those days. We did the math and we saved about $50 by buying the pass. You also got to go to the front of the line with the pass. Our friend, Julia from Germany, who used to be our foreign exchange student, stayed with us for a few days. She got into all the museums for free because she is a student in the European Union. Gotta love Europe!

Like the museums, the smaller cathedrals were more interesting. Notre Dame was spectacular but we enjoyed the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris  (Sacré-Cœur Basilica) and Ste. Chappelle more.

The Basilica is atop of the highest hill in Paris and just a short walk from our apartment. Ste. Chappelle, which is on the same island in the Seine as Notre Dame, is unique in its architecture. You are not going to see anything else like it. This might be that when I planned to go the Notre Dame, I knew what to expect, while these other two were completely foreign to me.

In addition to all the museums and cathedrals, we did a lot of eating. Every meal was amazing. We went up the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, walked along the Seine, went down into the Catacombs, visited a couple of historic cemeteries and even went to the zoo. We walked a total of 55 miles in ten days. So if you are planning a trip to Paris (a city of stairs), try to go with someone with which you are comfortable reciprocating foot massages.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Slow Burn of M*A*S*H Jumping the Shark

I was pleased when I noticed that the television show M*A*S*H was added to Netflix for streaming. I often watch Star Trek while trying to sleep at night. I have seen these episodes so much that I can close my eyes and listen. It puts me out. Since I have never watched M*A*S*H from start to finish, this was a good time to start rewatching one of my favorite shows from my childhood. I've always been curious as to when the show got bad (aka Jumped the Shark). The show starts off as one of the best shows on television being both very funny and socially relevant, which is rare. It also has its fair share of pathos. By the end the 11th season, it is unwatchable. The last few seasons are so bad that I cannot watch it while trying to sleep. It just makes me angry. It is no longer funny, the drama is bad and so preachy and self-righteous. It is almost insulting at times. How did something so good get so bad?

For those that don't know, the term Jump the Shark, is in reference to an episode of Happy Days when the character Fonzie jumped a tank of sharks with his motorcycle. It marks the moment which the show went from being a pretty good show to a really bad show. When a show Jumps the Shark, they have started to decline into a bad show. This moment is not clear for M*A*S*H for its decline is a slow burn happening in stages.

The book MASH: A Novel About Three Army Surgeons by Richard Hooker (aka H. Richard Hornberger) came out in 1968. I haven't read it mostly because I've heard it isn't worth it. It is mostly a retelling of stories and anecdotes of his experiences in the Korean War with the names changed (the 8055th MASH unit was changed to 4077th etc). The general theme revolves around how three army doctors (Trapper John, Hawkeye Pierce and Duke Forrest) used comedy to deal with the tragedy and stress of war. The books covers the entire war and ends with a big good-bye scene when the war ends.

The film, based on the novel, came out in 1970 directed by Robert Altman, screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. and starring (the three army surgeons) Elliot Gould as Trapper, Donald Sutherland as Hawkeye and Tom Skerritt as Duke. Duke is the only one not to make it into the television show. The movie poster was the first place where the asterisks appeared between the letters in the name: M*A*S*H. It caught on afterwards. Altman was the 9th director offered the task. His style of directing clashed with the stars. Gould and Sutherland tried to get him fired at one point. Like most of his films, it is difficult to follow without a star or a strict plot but with an ensemble cast of characters appearing somewhat chaotically throughout the film. The script was only loosely followed because the actors were given direction on what was happening in the scene and asked to improvise. Most of the dialogue in the film come from the actors. Like most of his films, I love it. I find his films more lifelike because of the chaos. It won the Golden Globe that year for best film and the Palme d'Or at Cannes but lost all the major Oscars to Patton, a much more serious war picture.

After the film's success, Hornberger wrote follow-up novels, the first being M*A*S*H Goes to Maine which follows the characters after the war and then M*A*S*H Mania, the characters in their old age. Eight more novels were published, written by ghost writers and published under Hornberger's pen name (Hooker). When the filming of the second book failed, it was decided to attempt a television show instead. The show started in 1970 and was almost cancelled after the first year due to low ratings but was saved after its time slot was changed to be after a hit show, All In the Family.  Time slots were important back then before DVRs and the Internet. Two of the best comedies ever made for American television were now going back to back. A few seasons in, I started watching when I was old enough to stay up that late. I remember having classmates in elementary school whose parents did not watch it or let their kids watch it because of the war aspect. "There is nothing funny about war." The Vietnam War was still very much active and in the news. Looking back on it now, comedy seems to be a completely appropriate response to the quagmire of war.

First big problem with the show is that the show went on almost four times longer than the actual war. The US was involved in the Korean War a little over three years ... from June 1950 to July 1953. The show went on for 11 seasons (255 episodes).  This means that, in showtime, roughly four days happens in between each episode. Watching the show now, this causes some problems. In one episode, they are suffering from a heatwave and the very next episode, they are preparing for below zero temperature. They also had four Christmas episodes (seasons 1, 7, 9 & 10).  Of course, when they were making the show back in the 70's, no one knew anyone would be binge watching in the 21th century. Also, when they started they didn't know they were going to have 11 seasons. If they did, they might have paced themselves differently. But don't you think once they had gotten to the third Christmas episode, they would have called an end to any new ones?

I've talked to people who were in MASH units in Korea and they like the show. They say that it is not a bad depiction of what it was like. The war, of course, is worst than 1970's American television could show and the jokes were dirtier but they basically got it right, which is really nice to hear. The big thing they got wrong is the amount of time the G.I.'s got to stay together. They spent a very short amount of times together. The characters Margaret and Hawkeye spend the entire war in the same unit together. This just did not happen. People were in and out of their lives so fleetingly that they barely got to know each other. Perhaps this made it easier to clown around. Close attachments were not made. As soon as you got close to someone, they were gone. Not to sound too meta, but perhaps this is why the show got so lame in the later years; the characters got to know each other too well. Intimacy eliminated the need for comedy.

It is ironic that if M*A*S*H had only been on television the same length of the war, it might have gone down as the best show ever. But as the main characters started leaving the show, they were replaced with good characters but not quite as good as the original. This makes the shows fall from grace to be a gradual one. When the show was cast, Wayne Rogers (who portrayed Trapper John) was told that his character would get equal billing to Hawkeye. But after a couple of seasons, he saw how his character was playing second fiddle to Alan Alda's. His character was edgy. He was cheating on his wife, he missed his kids and he drank heavily. He was replaced with B.J. Hunnecutt (portrayed by Mike Farrell) who was much less edgy and more moral than Trapper. B.J. doesn't look like a Californian in 50's; he looks more like a porn star from the 70's. McLean Stevenson (who portrayed Colonel Henry Blake) left the show the same season as Rogers for similar reasons. Stevenson's Blake was one of the funniest part of the early years. Blake was incompetent, bumbling and a skirt chaser. He was replaced by Harry Morgan's Colonel Potter who was stern, mature and not very funny. After a great three years, they lost two of the best characters, replaced them with less funny more moralistic counterparts. Let the shark jumping begin.

Another two seasons go by and the two trouble making surgeons continue to gang up on Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan and Major Frank Burns, but the two Majors are no longer a couple. Margaret gets married and Frank loses it. Frank, a cartoonish character, doesn't really develop much. The Major Burns that Robert Duval portrayed in the movie is much more serious and pious. Larry Linville's Burns is a buffoon that did not mature as the show progressed but became increasingly unbelievable as the show continued. Linville recognized this and was simply sick of playing the same fool for five years, he quit after his contract ran out. His leaving the show should have been an improvement at this point if they hadn't replaced him with Charles Emerson Winchester III (portrayed by David Ogden Stiers), a stereo-typical Boston snob. They replaced the buffoon with a self-righteous douche-bag. Another less funny character coming in making the show more serious.

The show is becoming a drama at this point, often called television's first dramedy, a poorly written drama with a laugh track. The laugh track always seemed out of place in this show because it was obvious that they weren't filming in front of a live audience. It is a left-over from the radio days when a joke could not be followed by silence. The network insisted on it. It is easy to forget it is even there until the jokes stop being funny. In the later seasons, when the show becomes painful to watch, the laugh track was toned down a little, but not enough. You can watch the last six seasons without laughing once, but that laugh track is there laughing along with the "jokes" as an awful reminder, this show used to be funny.

If you need a Jump the Shark moment, the best I can find is when all the characters began to get along. Of the two heavies in the early episodes, Margaret was the only one left. In the season five episode, "The Nurses," Margaret takes a turn toward being nice. She says to her nursing staff, "When did one of you ever even offer me a lousy cup of coffee?" and is invited into the nurses tent by the end of the episode. In season six's "Comrade in Arms," she and Hawkeye are caught behind enemy lines and have a love affair. From this point on, the show is not the same. Everyone gets along including Charles ... it is the camp against the world and no inner conflict. This makes for bad television. The fact that Margaret now has a 1980's style big hair perm at this point, makes the show downright ridiculous. They don't look like people from the 50's.

The Jump of the Shark is complete and we land on the other side of the shark tank when Radar (portrayed by Gary Burghoff) leaves the show at end of season eight. He is the only actor of the main characters to carry over from the movie and probably the most comically understated performances on the show. Burghoff hated portraying a teenager for eight years. By the time he left the show in 1979, he was in his mid-30's. His screen time was replaced by two recurring characters Klinger and Father Mulcahey who should never have left the shadows of any plot line.

Anything after this point is not worth watching. These late seasons are a reminder of how bad American television was back then. M*A*S*H  stood out as an excellent show for many years. It was a ground breaking show that should have ended long before it got this bad. It ended with a big bang though. The last episode in February 1983, a two and half hour long movie, had a record 125 million viewers. We only had 83 million homes at the time. These type of numbers nowadays are unheard of, mostly because we have a lot more options. Of the really bad episodes, it is one of the better ones but that is the best thing I can say about it. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Why I Went to the Bernie Kickoff and Why I Left Early #feelthebern

I have been a long time supporter of Bernie Sanders. I have voted for him for US Rep and for Senator. I donated to his campaign for Senator even though I know and like the person he was running against. The moment he announced he was running for President, we donated (the very first day). I like Bernie. I think he'd be a great President, but after attending his supporter kickoff today, I don't think it is going to happen. I didn't have a lot of hope before, now I have none.

Democratic Socialism is the way to go for our society, I have little doubt about this. Our society is becoming fractured across economic lines and our environmental problems seem insurmountable. Government can and does work provided that you have people who believe it can work and have the leadership ability to get it done. If you have read this blog in the past, you know there is no chance that I will be voting for a Republican, not even for dog catcher at this point. I find Hillary Clinton to a capable person and would probably make a fine president. If she is the Democratic candidate, I will probably vote for her. But for now, I remain with Bernie. While Hillary is a hawk, Bernie is a dove. In being sick of war, I am not alone. I will stand with the dove. With Bernie, what you see, is what you get. He speaks his mind and he follows through. You can't ask for more in a politician. I don't always agree with him but I trust him.

I had the day off today and I was excited that Bernie was announcing his candidacy today in Burlington. I had a doctor's appointment in the morning so I could go early and attend the supporter's meeting before Bernie's rally.  I went to the supporter meeting and was so turned off, I just left.  They started off by holding hands. This is a political event, I did not want to hold hands and I didn't. They formed a circle, I stood outside. They widened the circle so that I could join and I refused. I got dirty looks. I didn't care, I came to a political event not a prayer meeting. Then they started the Occupy Wall Street stuff ... the microphone test.  If you don't know what I am talking about, I included a video below as an example. Every time someone talked (in a tiny crowd of 20 people or so), everyone repeated each word to amplify it. I felt like I was in a Borg cube. The political grand standing started, people making empty speeches probably making themselves feel really good about themselves.  I was out of there. 

(example of Occupy's mic test - not from today's meeting)

In order to win the Presidency, you need mass appeal. This approach failed for Occupy Wall Street, why would it work here? This approach will never have mass appeal. They almost lost me and I love Bernie. How are they going to appeal to rest of the country, most of whom don't even know him? I fear that if they they continue this way the rest of the campaign, then it will fizzle miserably.  I am holding off writing any more checks to Bernie for President. It is time to get real. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Internment Camps and Racism

I find most of the conversations that we have about race to be quite shallow. They usually end in finger pointing or someone saying something like "you don't think I'm a racist, do you?" or my favorite "I'd hate to sound racist but ..."  As an American that knows a little bit about history, I start off with the default setting in that I assume if you are an American, you are a racist. How can you help not be? Our history is so seeped in racism, just by the the virtue of you being born here, you cannot help but have some sort of hang-up about race. Racism is in our Constitution. We ended slavery not by decree like other countries, we had to have the bloodiest war in our history to do so. The man on the US $20 bill was responsible for the force marching of 16,000 natives into relocation camps (we called them reservations). They were taken from their ancestral homes in Florida and Georgia and marched across several states to land west of the Mississippi River. I could go on about Jim Crow laws, voter suppression, mass incarceration or the Tuskegee experiments. Is that all in our past? Are we post-racial? Fuck no! The idea that we are post-racial was put forth by guilt ridden suburbanites who wanted to feel good about themselves because they voted for a bi-racial president. We are an inch up the yard stick of racial progress, empty conversations are just marking a notch on stick or a ditch on the road of progress.  In light of all the racist bullshit I've been seeing on the news lately (of Ferguson and Baltimore etc.), I would hope that the only people talking about a post-racial society, are only doing so ironically.

I do realize that if you overuse a word, you belittle its meaning. If every attack of violence or rebellion is called terrorism, we belittle real terrorism. Therefore if everyone is a racist, then no one is racist. I understand the semantics. I am fine with this. Consider it a bump on the road of progress, once we get over the name calling, we'll be thrust into a real conversation.

You ready? Let's talk ...

When it comes to Presidential acts of racism, we usually don't think of recent history. We usually think of the aforementioned Jackson and his Trail of Tears or John Adams and his Alien and Sedition Acts or one of the slave owner presidents. We don't think of FDR. Can you imagine Americans being taken from their homes, put on buses and put into camps? It is something that our liberal icon, Franklin Roosevelt, did. The internment camps of recent past is a crime we talk little about today. It is difficult to understand how this could happen.  Americans have a tendency to overreact, like the Patriot Act and two unsustainable wars after the 9/11 attacks. Obviously, we don't learn a lot from our history. The racism I witnessed after those attacks may not have been as bad as what the Japanese went through after Pearl Harbor, but it was pretty gross nonetheless .... and it still lingers. Since we still haven't gotten over slavery, I expect this isn't going away anytime soon.

Let go back a few years before the war. After President Arthur passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which forbade anymore immigrants from China, Japanese immigration greatly increased on the American west coast. Due to laws passed in 1907 and 1924, it completely stopped. This is relevant in that by the time the Japanese government attacked Pearl Harbor, all the Japanese families living in the US (mostly California) had been here for over 30 years. They were still forbidden to be citizens, couldn't vote or officially, own land.  The devastation caused by the 1906 earthquake, gave rise to more segregated schools during the rebuilding boom. A small isolated population was easy to demonize.  On February 19, 1942 Executive Order 9066 was signed by President Franklin Roosevelt initially giving the Secretary of War the authority to treat parts of the US as war zones. This started with curfews and other restrictions to everyone of Japanese ancestry and lead to interment camps.

We often hear them referred to as Japanese interment camps which is deceptive because it wasn't just Japanese but Germans and Italians were interred as well. About 60% were Japanese. The difference being that only certain professions were interned of Germans and Italians (ranging from photographers to engineers). Entire families of Japanese were interred. After their homes and business were taken, they were carted like cattle, we then asked them to sign loyalty oaths. Due to the 1924 Immigration Act. when they owned land, they often had the names of white men on the deeds because they couldn't own land in their own names. After internment, their property easily was taken. Even when they were released, they had to start over. This was the perfect storm of racism.

Most of the camps were segregated as well. Most of the Germans and Italians were sent to Camp Albuquerque in New Mexico. The only camp that housed a significant mix was Crystal City in Texas. Multiple nationality camps were against the Geneva Convention. Crystal City was mainly used to house detainees who were expected to be used in prisoner exchanges. Roughly 50 camps existed scattered throughout the Western states. The idea of interning more Germans and Italians was unpopular, for one, there were over 50 million Germans in America at the time and some of America's most popular people were Italian.  Joe DiMaggio was Italian. After all, they looked like us. Not like those damn slanty-eyed Japs! (**deep sigh**)

If you are looking for something to ponder on Memorial Day.  Here is something:  At the start of World War II we didn't allow Japanese Americans to serve in the military. But Roosevelt changed his mind shortly after the war started and they formed the 442 Infantry Regiment of the Army. They recruited from the camps. They fought mostly in the Italian campaign. It is one of the the most decorated units in American military history with 14,000 men earning 9,486 Purple Hearts and 21 metals of honor. Even a sniveling peacenik is impressed by this. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Avengers: Age of Excess

I was excited to see the new Avengers movie yesterday. I went to see it alone. I was quickly disappointed. It was choppy, uneven and difficult to follow at times. Having grown up reading Marvel comics, I await the newest installments from the Marvel Cinematic Universe with too much glee for a 50 year old man to admit. The technology did not exist to set these books to film when I was a kid, so I welcome the excess usually ... provided that the excess is well done and worth the money I spent to see it.  I can't say that Avengers: The Age of Ultron was worth it .. the wait or the money.

The Avengers were never my favorite comic. I read it and enjoyed it, but I was more into the more angst ridden heroes like Spider-Man, Daredevil and the X-men. The more cavalier Captain America and Iron Man were too perfect for me to wrap my little head around. A war hero loved by all and an obnoxious millionaire with high tech toys didn't really resonate with this post-hippy working class teenager. The Hulk was the only member of the Avengers that had any appeal to me, but he had his own book so The Avengers book took a back seat. But when Marvel came out with the first Avengers film a few years ago, they pulled me in again. It was one of the best comic book movies ever made. Most of them are stinkers, but when a good one comes along, I have to really embrace it. Among the better ones I would put Spider-Man 2, The Watchmen, Guardians of the Galaxy and Batman Begins. The Avengers joined that list. The follow-up to it, did not. Expectations were high and they fell miserably.

Most of the members of The Avengers already have their own film franchises (Captain America, Ironman, the Hulk) so no time is wasted on their back stories in this film.  The remaining two, Black Widow and Hawkeye don't, so screen time had to be wasted on character development. This isn't usually a problem if it is done well, but it isn't in this film. Hawkeye's back story, well, who cares? He is not a very interesting character. An archer just doesn't seem to make a lot of sense in this group. It didn't seem to make a lot of sense when I read the book as a kid. I wouldn't have been upset if they killed him off. Black Widow is a different story. She has an interesting back story and has always been an interesting character. She is the only woman in the group, so of course, her back story had to be a romance (of course not) ... with David Banner, a guy who can't get excited or he might hurt somebody. It was a bit too much like Twilight for me and just seem to be stuck in the film. It went no where. The one joy of the film is the introduction of The Vision, always one of the more elusive and mysterious characters. He was so well done in the film. His presence almost saved the film for me.

I haven't even gotten to the biggest problem with the film. It was just really hard to follow. For one, I couldn't tell what was going on in some of the action sequences. I had no sense of who was where in some of the scenes and who was fighting whom. They were so choppy that the moment I thought I understood what was happening it would cut to another shot or another scene altogether. This type of choppiness continued throughout the film, not just the action scenes, making the narrative difficult to follow.

As far as plot goes, I don't ever expect profundity or anything to challenge any of my ideals. I simply expect good fun and a few hours of pure entertainment in comic book films.  But I can't say I am entirely sure what our villain, Ultron's, evil plan was or what his motivations were. He was trying to destroy the human race so we could evolve into something new. What? When he couldn't get the nuclear codes, he decided to take some East European country, make it fly and turn it into a meteor to destroy us like the dinosaurs?  Uhm, what?  Am I right about this!  Did I get that right?  I am still unsure. Lets hope the next Avengers film is better and less of a muddle.  Hopefully, we'll get less excess and more clarity as to what the heck is going on.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Jefferson, Redistribution and Primogeniture

Great nations and empires die for many different reasons, but one of the most consistent is poor distribution of wealth. Whether we are talking about the monarchy in France or the Ancient Roman Republic, a stratified state is unstable and will end in blood. Not to sound like a purveyor of doom, but the Roman upper 1% owned 16% of the wealth while the US wealthy currently own almost twice that. When Rome was invaded by barbarians, the plebes either joined them or folded due to lack of resources. Why fight to maintain an empire that you have no stake in?

This is a new problem for the United States, mostly because of space. Thomas Jefferson believed that everyone, even the very poor, should own land. In his time, if life wasn't working out for you, you went west. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of our country and the government cleared the way of natives making it safe for settlers. Homestead laws promoted ownership. Wealth was redistributed easily because land was plentiful and the population was relatively small. We had a low demand of land and high supply so prices were low.

Unless we develop warp drive or a new continent bursts out of the ocean, the era of homesteading is over and has been for a while. We have had many fixes to this problem. The New Deal introduced many programs to help those devastated by the Great Depression. We have had the GI Bill, student loans, minimum wage laws and even entrepreneurs like Henry Ford who thought his workers should be able to afford the product they made. Whenever President Obama tries to do something about our currently trends of the rich-getting-richer/poor-getting-poorer, which is alarming, the whack job right wing (aka the Republican Party) calls him a socialist or that he is declaring class warfare.

How bad is it? Not as bad as it seems. The big probably we have is one of perception. We keep comparing ourselves to 1950's. Most of the industrialized world was recovering from World War II. Europe, Japan and the other industrial powers in the world were bombed to shreds, while the US remained relatively unscathed. This allowed for a thriving middle class. It also allowed for high taxation. Both German and Japan had recovered by the mid-1960's and are once again economic powerhouses along with India, Brazil, China, Mexico and South Africa. The US has a lot of competition. The middle class is disappearing but it was mostly an anomaly of history so we need to stop whining about it and accept it. We were raised under unusual circumstances. If we want to maintain the middle class, which is something that I embrace because I am a member, we need come up with new ideas. You could see the middle class as a great progressive movement in history, but it could just be a momentary blip and nothing more.

The problems of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer has been with us for a long time. Thomas Jefferson, when he was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, made some moves that if Fox "News" were around would have flipped. He fought for the elimination of primogeniture. If you have read any British literature or watched Downton Abbey, you know primogeniture as the process by which wealth is transferred to the eldest son. When all of one's wealth was transferred to one person, this concentrated the wealth into the hands of the few. It was changed to what we have now where we transfer wealth to all of one's children. This was eventually adopted on a federal level. Thomas Paine, probably the most radical of US founding fathers, believed that primogeniture was responsible for the moral corruptness of the aristocracy because the young aristocrat began their adulthood by stomping on their siblings. Paine wanted an estate to be distributed to all 21 year old citizens (not just the family) equally. Interesting idea. The current Republican party wants to eliminate the estate tax completely. You really need to shrug when people cling to the founding fathers as conservatives. Some of them were, like Alexander Hamilton, but they certainly are no monolith. Their ideas were as diverse of our current batch of leaders, they just knew the art of compromise.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Literature of Passing

One of my favorite short novels is the book Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen, a Harlem Renaissance writer. Her two short novels, Quicksand and Passing are usually sold together in one volume as Quicksand and Passing. Both books are excellent and worth reading, but Passing is one of those books that my interpretation completely changed after I talked to a friend. The book is about a two black girls (Clare and Irene) who are good friends. One of them, Clare, has extremely light skin hence can pass as a white person. Because of this, they go different ways. Clare marries a white man and lives among his world. Most of the book is about the relationship of the two women when they meet up again as adults. The "passing" in the title meant racially passing to me as I read through the book, but this friend pointed out that Clare was also passing as a gay woman pretending to be straight. This blew my mind. She pointed out passages in the book where there are erotic undertone to how Clare describes Irene and how Irene has a sexless marriage. I've always wanted to reread the book. It is so short, I am not sure why I haven't.

I have been thinking about this lately because I recently read an article in Salon about a professor, Carlyle V. Thompson, at Medger Evers College in Brooklyn that is proposing that Gatsby (from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby) is a light skin black man passing in the white world. This is the first time I have heard this and it is intriguing. This book came out just a few years after Larsen's and it is possible that Fitzgerald did recognize the hypocrisies in our nation's racial politics and coded it therein. The textual evidence is light, with Gatsby hair being "close-cropped" and he owned 40 acres and a mansion (as opposed to 40 acres and a mule).  The best case for this is that Gatsby's past is unknown and mysterious. No one knows anything about him. He changed his name from Gatz to Gatsby and claims that his family is all dead. The only overt reference to race in the book is when Tom Buchanan (Gatsby's rival for Daisy), a Nordic with a body with "enormous power" and "two shining arrogant eyes," starts talking about the black race taking over the world. Tom says "next they'll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white." This is pre-Hitler set in an era when eugenics was discussed casually.  Miscegenation was still controversial. The only person that seems uncomfortable with Tom is our narrator, Nick Carraway.

If anyone is passing in The Great Gatsby, it is Nick. His family's discomfort for his isn't only because he is single. It is possible that he is a gay man passing in a straight world. He tells us of his experience with the "feminine" male photographer Mr. McKee that "I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands." Indeed. We are then given an ellipsis ridden paragraph and four hours missing from the plot line. This is about as homo-erotic as we get in any novel of the sexually repressed Jazz Age.

I am not sure how relevant it is whether Gatsby is black or Nick is gay. It just throws more depth in an already masterful tiny book that I can be reread many times without catching everything. Should I give it a fourth read? I'm sure I will get around to it, eventually. Fitzgerald lived in Paris for a short time hitting the jazz clubs with Zelda and Hemingway. His exposure to other ways of life was undoubted rich. I have no doubt it had an effect on him.